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Inside Dr. Amy Acton’s Internet Fan Club

Usually public health officials remain in the background, but with one of the biggest public health crises the world has ever seen, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton is now in the spotlight.

There have been calls for her to run for president, start a podcast, or for her to be the main character in a movie starring Allison Janney.

There are fan posts on Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram. The Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club Facebook group has 73,000 members and growing.

The posts feature pictures of Acton in her white lab coat, walking alongside Governor Mike DeWine, with the caption: “Not all heroes wear capes. Mine wears a white coat.”

Acton’s quotes can now be found on coffee mugs, on t-shirts, and written in chalk on sidewalks.

But why has the 54-year-old public health official become the face of Ohio’s coronavirus response?

At 2:00pm every day, she and Gov. DeWine give Ohioans an update on the pandemic. They’re usually joined by Lieutenant Gov. Jon Husted and, occasionally, Ohio’s First Lady Fran DeWine.

The internet has taken to calling it "Wine with DeWine."

Cuyahoga County Board of Health Commissioner Terry Allan said he’s not surprised that her daily briefings have resonated with people.

“She’s the communicator in chief. She’s great at describing things in a way that everyone can understand,” Allan said. “She has a certain inherent empathy that goes along, I think, with her talent as a public health physician.”

Allan said part of her ability to connect is through her personal story, and her ability to share it.

Acton had a transient childhood in Youngstown, living in 18 places in 12 years, including a tent when she and her family were homeless.

She speaks often of her family during the press conferences, like on Wednesday, when she responded to a little girl’s letter.

“Ruby is nine years old, she’s at home with her little brother, I had a little brother growing up. She said, ‘I’m happy you see a bright future for us.’ I want to tell you Ruby, not only do I see a bright future for us, I see a bright right now for us.”

Her messages have inspired hope in many of her fans, including Sarah Hendrickson, the director of the Center for Health Resilience at MetroHealth.

“Everybody lives on this spectrum of hope and fear, and safety is what gets us from fear to hope,” Hendrickson said. “She’s really providing that sense of safety and calm and security that will help us traverse that spectrum to hope.”

Hendrickson appreciates seeing a strong woman leading Ohio’s coronavirus response, and she’s amazed at Acton’s ability to have fans across all political ideologies. She said Acton’s vulnerability has endeared her to her many fans.

“You’ve seen her become tearful, you’ve seen her voice crack, you’ve seen her get intense and fierce.”

Acton’s tone changes depending on the news she needs to share.

“This is a state of emergency. We are at war with an unseen enemy that is a virus,” Acton said. “Eighty percent of us will be fine, and the other 20 percent of us, everything the rest of us do is to protect the most vulnerable and help our health care system prioritize our resources well. We will get to the other side of this, and we will stick with you every step of the way and give you guidance.”

Allan said her way of communicating is reminiscent of FDR’s fireside chats during World War II.

“She actually tells the truth. She says, ‘This is going to be hard, this is going to be difficult, there will be more cases, there will be deaths. This will be heartbreaking, but we can get through this.’ She just talks about the positive ways that people have been interacting and helping each other, and tries to encourage us to do that, explains the public health risk factors, and just tells the truth. She makes us feel like we have a shared responsibility to take care of this.”

Ohio has seen that leadership, and other states are beginning to notice the humble woman sharing a piece of herself each day, as she calls for Ohioans to come together, even though we’re physically apart.

After receiving fan mail from 9-year-old Ruby, she made sure to give credit to her colleagues.

“I’m the tip of an iceberg of some amazing colleagues of mine, cabinet members and really, public servants,” Acton said. “It is our job to do this for you, and I’m the tip of the iceberg of a huge amount of folks who have been working for over two months, 24/7 on your behalf. And they will continue working for you, all through this. So please know, it’s not me, it’s all of us.”

Acton isn’t without critics. Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder sent a memo to house members saying many of her decisions have confused Ohioans and presented challenges for their system of government, like the last minute decision to close polls on Election Day.

Householder also tweeted that the governor shouldn’t have completely closed restaurants, a message that some critics on the internet agree with because of its impact on the economy.

Allan said Acton is very aware of how much of a financial burden her decisions have on Ohio businesses and families.

“She worries about the health care workers, and exposures, and EMS, and the kids home from school, and people losing jobs in this process, because we’re really trying to shut this down and there’s been a lot of pain,” Allan said. “Those are the things I think that she thinks about. She thinks about what more should we do now, so that she doesn’t have to wake up tomorrow and think she didn’t do enough.”

That’s what motivates Acton, according to Allan, not the social media posts from fans.

Allan told a story about one press conference, before the stay at home order, before Ohio residents began to see how great of an impact the virus would have on their lives. Acton answered all of the media questions, and the press conference ended.

“But I noticed that there was a patient there that had a mask on their face, that was sort of in the crowd in the back, and they were raising their hand to ask a question,” Allan said. “When the press conference ended, I watched her walk right up to the individual in the mask. I saw Dr. Acton sit with her and have time with her to answer her questions face-to-face. So that was where I think we began to see a glimpse of who she was in a way that was an indication of what we were about to see.”

Meanwhile, her fans will be watching. You’ll find people posting about their appointment viewing of her press conferences, calling her “Dr. Action,” and tweeting her messages, like: “Life is not shutting down, it’s waking us up.”

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